Lycopene is a phytochemical (any biologically active compound found in plants) found in red fruits and vegetables such as pink grapefruit, papaya, seabuckthorn, goji, rosehips and watermelon. These fruits get their red coloring from the carotenoid pigment lycopene contains, which also helps protect the plant against the toxic effects of oxygen and light. In fact, thanks to the chemical structure which gives lycopene its deep red color, it is approved in some countries as a food coloring. Chemically speaking, lycopene is a carotene, a subclass of carotenoids which are, themselves, a class of compounds related to vitamin A. The best known carotene is beta-carotene. In some cases, carotenoids act as precursors for vitamin A, some act as antioxidants, while some have other important functions to perform.
Lycopene gets its name from the Latin word lycopersicum, named after the humble tomato (this Latin term can be used interchangeably to refer to either the plant itself or the fruit it bears) which makes sense because the main source of lycopene in our diet comes from tomatoes.
Lycopene’s bioavailability is increased by cooking and processing because the heat breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. For example, tomato sauce and tomato paste have four times more bioavailable lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Other sources high in lycopene include tomato soup, juice, and ketchup. However, if not made from scratch, you do have to watch the sugar content in some commercially produced versions of the aforementioned. So, next time someone asks you to pass the ketchup, don’t be offended; you’re actually doing them a favour.
Tomatoes don’t have to be red to contain lycopene. In fact, orange and yellow coloured tomatoes also contain lycopene and may be more efficiently absorbed by certain individuals. So don’t shy away from a tomato just because it’s not red.
Lycopene has powerful antioxidant properties; in some instances, far outdoing some of the more well-known antioxidants. For instance, did you know it is a natural, internal sunblock? When your skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, singlet oxygen is produced, creating one of the main reasons your skin ages. Lycopene, in test tube studies, has shown to be 100x more efficient than vitamin E, and 125x times more efficient than glutathione, at extinguishing singlet oxygen.
Because lycopene has shown so much promise, research is continuing, looking to uncover a possible correlation between increased lycopene consumption and improvement of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers and osteoporosis. As far back as 1999, the American Association of Cancer Research released a report outlining how lycopene may inhibit growth of prostate cancer.
In one pilot study, men with localized prostate cancer were treated with 30mg of lycopene extract daily for a month prior to radical prostatectomy. When the prostate glands were analyzed pathologically, men treated with lycopene appeared to have less aggressive, lower stage tumours than the untreated men. Levels of prostate specific antigen, a measure of tumour activity, also fell 20% between the start of treatment and surgery in the lycopene patients. They were unchanged in the comparison group. They study was performed on patients at the Karmanos Cancer Clinic in Detroit. The results of this work appear to cooroborate a study published in 1995 by Dr. Ed Giovannuci and other at Harvard Medical School. In the Giovannuci study, a semi-quantitative food questionnaire was administered to more than 47,000 men, who were then followed for 6 years. The incidence of prostate cancer among this cohort demonstrated an inverse relationship to the intake of certain foodstuffs, particularly tomatoes and the lycopene content, especially. The 1995 conclusion was the “…lycopene or other compounds in tomatoes may reduce prostate cancer risk.” 1 To date, it is unclear whether it is lycopene alone, or in concert with other compounds, which make it such an effective antioxidant.
Lycopene also helps break down LDL (or lousy) cholesterol. People that suffer from high cholesterol sometimes lack the natural liver enzymes used to break down and eliminate LDL’s. In these cases, lycopene can help. It is stored as a fat-soluble compound in the liver and fills in where the missing enzymes left off. Of course, you also have to follow a cholesterol-lowering diet and lifestyle…lycopene can’t do it all by itself!
Intake of lycopene may benefit lung health, according to a large study published in 2000. Analyzing data on 124,207 adults who were followed for 10 to 12 years, researchers found that lung cancer risk was significantly lower amoung those who consumed a diet high in a variety of carotenoids. (Remember, lycopene is a carotene, a subclass of carotanoids.) 2
Following a diet rich in lycopene may offer some cardiovascular benefits, a 2003 study suggest. Sizing up the lycopene intake of 39,876 middle-aged and older women over the course of about seven years, scientists discovered that those who consumed the most lycopene had a lower cardiovascular disease risk than those who consumed the least lycopene. 3
Researchers have recently found an important connection between lycopene, its antioxidant properties, and bone health. A study was designed in which tomato and other dietary sources of lycopene were removed from the diets of postmenopausal women for a period of 4 weeks, to see what effect lycopene restriction would have on bone health. At the end of 4 weeks, women in the study started to show increased signs of oxidative stress in their bones and unwanted changes in their bone tissue. The study investigators concluded that removal of lycopene-containing foods (including tomatoes) from the diet was likely to put women at increased risk of osteoporosis. They also argued for the importance of tomatoes and other lycopene-containing foods in the diet. We don’t always think about antioxidant protection as being important for bone health, but it is, and tomato lycopene (and other tomato antioxidants) may have a special role to play in this area.
Tomato extracts have also been shown to help prevent unwanted clumping together of platelet cells in the blood – a factor that is especially important in lowering risk of heart problems like atherosclerosis .4
Whether or not lycopene can help you avoid any of the “biggies”, adding lycopene-rich foods to your diet simply for their antioxidant properties alone is a good thing.
Here’s a great tomato soup recipe that fast, easy and fresh. Enjoy!
4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1/2 small onion, sliced
4 whole cloves
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons white sugar, or to taste
1. In a stockpot, over medium heat, combine the tomatoes, onion, cloves and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, and gently boil for about 20 minutes to blend all of the flavours. Remove from heat, remove the cloves, and run the mixture through a food mill or blend gently in a food processor allowing steam to escape through the top. Pour into a large bowl.
2. In the now empty stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour to make a roux, cooking until the roux is a medium brown. Gradually whisk in a bit of the tomato mixture, so that no lumps form, then stir in the rest. Season with sugar and salt, and adjust to taste.
Calories: 75 | Total Fat: 4.1g | Cholesterol: 10mg
1. Urological Sciences Research Foundation
2. Michaud DS, Feskanich D, Rimm EB, Colditz GA, Speizer FE, Willett WC, Giovannucci E. “Intake of specific carotenoids and risk of lung cancer in 2 prospective US cohorts.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 72(4):990-7.
3. Sesso HD, Liu S, Gaziano JM, Buring JE. “Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women.” J Nutr. 2003 133(7):2336-41.
4. Whole Foods
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
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